Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Musical theatre versus theatrical music

There are a few people in RVA whose presence in the audience of a show I'm doing excites me just a bit more. Dave and Liz White, Stacie Rearden Hall, Maura Burroughs, and several other sometime collaborators always guarantee an erudite discussion of the craft of theatre after the show, and the only thing I love as much as creating art is discussing the creation of art. In the same vein, when David Timberline sees a show I've directed I get a little extra-excited to see what he's going to say. His criticism is always intelligent, always fair, and always invites discussion.

Dave saw Joe Jackson's Night and Day last night. No fair sitting in the front row, by the way (though that wasn't nearly as distracting as Tim Kaine striking up a conversation with me ten seconds before my entrance last Sunday. Turns out Tim and Anne are huge Joe Jackson fans. Who knew?). Dave's take on the show was published on his blog this afternoon. As is so often the case with his writing, it got my mind whirling with deep thoughts and counter-arguments. And that's what this blog is for, friends.

"Concert musical" is the term I've been using to describe JJND for the past few months, and I've never been entirely happy with it. Dave's reaction to the show's lack of narrative brought my dissatisfaction home, and hard. Celia Wren eloquently described the piece in the Times-Dispatch a couple weeks ago thus: "Built around an onstage band, Hamm's production wasn't a play per se. Rather, he drew out, expanded and interlinked narrative elements in Jackson's albums, turning the songs into musical scenes and sketches featuring recurring characters. A principal storyline, concerning a New York-based songwriter striving to capture the city's energy in a catchy tune, added unity."

Finally this week, words that resonate came to mind: Joe Jackson's Night and Day isn't musical theatre. It's theatrical music.

The reason this terminology is so important is evident in Dave's completely reasonable response to the show's lack of through-lines. In coming from a theatrical standpoint, he walked into the theatre with storytelling, character-fulfilling expectations that the material not only doesn't meet, but doesn't even care about. The comparison with Tommy is telling and, in my humble opinion, quite mistaken; Tommy is in absolutely no way a "concert musical;" it's an entirely traditional book musical that just happens to have rock music at its core. It's full of dialogue songs, storyline, and characters with beginnings, middles, and ends. Joe Jackson's Night and Day makes no attempt at any of these things.

Expecting JJND to have the same aesthetic resonance as a play is like reading a collection of Chekhov short stories and expecting them to result in a novel, or like seeing David Mamet's New York Stories and expecting them to result in Glengarry Glen Ross. The best theatrical analogue to JJND that I can think of is Neil Simon's The Good Doctor, a collection of short plays based on Chekhov stories and linked together by a Writer character who has several monologues and acts as a narrator. But even that isn't quite right, because the scenes in The Good Doctor are all little plays in and of themselves, with traditional storytelling narrative. A better example would be Randall Kenan's short story collection Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, which I'm fairly certain no one I know has ever read, making it a moot instance. But trust me, it's good.

Songs are like short fiction or poetry in that they don't have any requirement to tell story, only to create imagery. I hate hate hate jukebox musicals, and the thing that distinguishes JJND from jukebox musicals is that it very specifically refuses to shoehorn story and character development into the material in order to spoon-feed connective tissue to the audience. JJND is still in development, and has changed a lot in the past 12 years, but it will never ever ever have an over-arching story, nor will the characters go from point A to point Z. Instead, we see sketches of lives, point D through J, L through M, R through V.

We are creating something unique with Joe Jackson's Night and Day, and it is as much a challenge to the audience as it has been to the artists. We welcome the challenge, even if it means that the show occasionally hits audience members bonk on the brain a bit. I'm glad that the show's critics have had questions and disagreements with our choices, because they will help us grow the show for October's New York showcase, as well as future iterations. And I love talking about the craft of theatre!

For now, we have two shows left and limited seats. I invite you to let the show wash over you like songs, not like scenes. Come out to Joe Jackson's Night and Day and see what all the fuss is about.


  • At 8/19/2012 11:11 PM , Blogger Dave T said...

    Thanks for the kind words, Andrew, and for the reasoned commentary on your own work (and sorry about the front row – but I just knew I would want to be close to the action!) I’m glad you included Celia’s description because, as is often the case with a superior writer, she described the format of your show better than I could have. I like your summary phrase, also: theatrical music. That fits very well. Each song was a vignette that could have stood alone but there were elements that spanned songs and an overarching framework involving the songwriter.

    We could quibble about “Tommy” – if it’s a traditional book musical that you’d lump in with “Oklahoma” or even “Avenue Q,” it’s an entirely unsatisfying one as far as I’m concerned – but I can see that the comparison doesn’t apply to a night of theatrical music versus a concert musical.

    I appreciate your assertion that you are creating something unique with JJND. I applaud that as well as your devotion to the project. It was clear to me that plenty of folks at the performance I attended didn’t give a whit about through-lines or connective tissue; they were digging the performances and enjoying the band and didn’t need anything else.

    My only concern – and it is a concern, not a criticism, because I would like nothing more than to see your show do gangbusters in NYC and beyond – is that I wonder whether the audience’s expectations are being taken into account. Not that anybody’s expectations should be coddled but, if they are defied, it might be best for them to be defied in a way that is exciting and challenging, not confusing or in any way alienating.

    I think there is in human nature a desire for catharsis, or at least closure of some kind. Not that every work of art should provide that; some of the best doesn’t. But there are reasons that the classic dramatic arc in plays and classic plot trajectory in musicals are classic. They work. People like them. I fear there is a little bit of dissonance in having characters who persist from song to song but then don’t necessarily have a conclusion. And by a conclusion, I don’t mean the character falls in love, gets married and retires to Hoboken. The songwriter’s conclusion in the scope of things is relatively small – he brings his problematic song home – but it makes for a fine and satisfying conclusion. But I still left wondering why he’s the only character that gets one. Could the homeless guy find a warm place to sleep for the night? Could the artist / transvestite encounter someone who does him a kindness so the audience can imagine a future where he might be happy? It sounds pat and maybe simplistic when laid out so plainly but even a hint of conclusion to any of those stories allows an audience member to leave the show with the character someplace specific in their imagination, instead of just kind of wandering the streets.

    (to be continued...)

  • At 8/19/2012 11:13 PM , Blogger Dave T said...

    (continued from previous comment...)

    Of course, maybe you don’t want that. And that’s fine – you are the artist and you get to make the choices that you think are best. But without some dramatic arc for many of the characters, I think you’ll have to deal with the question of “why should we care?” In “Dear Mom,” there seems to be the establishment of a backstory for the stripper / prostitute character. That made me want to care for her. But when I only saw her struggle and not get anywhere different, I didn’t feel like that emotional investment – however small – was rewarded.

    I hope these comments don’t make you defensive or angry. I couldn’t be happier that you responded with intelligence and clarity to my post about the show. Your show is very entertaining and I had a great time attending it. And my opinions don’t necessarily have any more gravity to them than those of people who love the show just the way it is. But if there is anything of value that might come from my reviews, I hope it is to make artists aware of how the choices they make might be affecting people in the audience. Maybe not all of the people in the audience but at least some of them. You can choose to do with that information what you wish, with ignoring it being the most common response.

    I look forward to hearing about the next steps in the JJND journey! I hope you closed up the show this weekend satisfied with a job well done and energized about what the future holds. Best of luck!

  • At 8/20/2012 5:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I'd call JJND an "interpretive concert."

    I was disappointed in only one thing--I didn't see any acknowledgement of the use of Kickstarter in the program or the introduction. Maybe I missed it.

    Regular people invested in this show and the apparent success in raising money for JJND gives me hope that we might see Kickstarter used to fund other artistic endeavors here in Richmond, endeavors that have the kind of soul and determination you showed, Andrew, in getting this show on stage at a well-known venue with a professional cast.


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